Sometimes a phrase will come into my brain and stay there for months until I let it become part of a story or poem. An example, “There’s something I wanted to tell you” has been floating around in my head for weeks. If it becomes a story or poem and gets out into the world, I’ll post it here. For the many years that I led writing workshops at the Brooklyn Veterans Center, I always started with a phrase or a few words – a loose writing prompt that sometimes worked for everyone in the group, sometimes not but nearly always led to very different stories/poems – some so visceral and vivid that I still remember them even when I can’t really remember the people who wrote them. Though I don’t miss the unreliable subway commute there and back again or the bureaucracy surrounding that weekly gathering, I do miss the stories and my part in helping to spark those stories. I miss the reading of those stories and the sharing of our words in that safe space. As the news comes through of the closing of Café Loup – a restaurant where I never ate but where I also spent many hours after MFA workshops with my classmates discussing everything from the Ramones to line-breaks, I am reminded about the lack of community in NYC – how difficult it is to find and maintain any group (reading, writing, hiking) and how often those groups fall apart because we are all competitive and we all work too much. And of course people move away from NYC or have babies or get book deals or stop going out even for coffee. Life is hard. Writing is hard. Fitting writing into life is incredibly hard. My writing these days is less about talking with other writers and more about trying to please book review editors or trying to figure out just what it was I was trying to say in a particular section of my dissertation. Often I just end up streaming noir crime series or reading other people’s books (some good, some wonderful, some dull or really badly written). I often wonder just what it is that makes some people have the courage to send out a manuscript into the world. When I read manuscripts (and I read a LOT of them), I’m constantly struck both by the brilliance of some writers and the laziness of others. Is it so difficult to use spellcheck? Or to read sentences aloud so they sound halfway decent? I also wonder why I see so many more manuscripts from men than women. After all, my MFA classes were mostly women (or do I just remember them that way?). And yet there seems to be this massive group of men writing novels and stories and sending them out into the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of these manuscripts are the best I’ve read. But many, many are not. Often I prefer to read “blind” so I don’t know who/what/where the writer is – just let the words speak for themselves. But that’s not how the world works, not really. We all come to things (art, work, life) with preconceptions – writing is no different. Mostly people don’t work hard enough on their own art before they send it out. But sometimes they get it right and that makes all the reading worthwhile. #WRITEON
This morning I opened my email to a notice from the DOE that my grad student loans, ALL of them, are going into repayment in TWO WEEKS. So instead of editing that past due book review on my break at the Day Job, I spent my time requesting the 17 different pieces of paper needed to remind the DOE that I am still enrolled in a University graduate program & still in a state of deferment. Said book review will somehow get written tonight and then on to the next one. Book reviews are an interesting form of writing. I have a good, kind editor who generally allows me to say what I want to say within the assigned word count. I find this short form of writing to be particularly helpful in reminding me how to write succinctly, critically, and with a degree of passion not generally allowed in my more “academic” work. I also get to (mostly) write about books I want to write about. I don’t end up loving all of them but when I don’t love a book, the review is also a great exercise in figuring out why: is it a craft issue? language choices? poorly executed themes? or do I just disagree with what’s being said? It’s also really nice to get paid for writing. Yesterday I walked to my bank and deposited THREE checks for reviews I’ve written. Small amounts of money in NYC terms but still, getting PAID for writing in a world that does not like to pay writers. And this leads me to what I’m calling the “dissertation prospectus blues.” I’m spending this semester of grad school supposedly putting together a formal prospectus (or proposal) for my dissertation. I’ve written one already – a sort of quick pass with an extended bibliography. It was good enough to get me accepted into the “Early Career (writing) Workshop” at The Center for Women’s History @ the New York Historical Society but I don’t even know if I want to stick with my topic (loosely based around female/gender identity, punk rock, Kathy Acker, and the EV in the 1980s/1990s). Can I really do a dissertation on women in punk? Should I? And of course, in tandem with these dissertation prospectus blues are my always ambivalent feelings at the end of another summer. A summer wherein I wrote very little beyond book reviews. A summer where I spent more time at a desk than in the ocean. A summer where I questioned every day this idea of being a writer, of the worth of writing, of whether or not I should finish my Ph.D. and what it would mean if I didn’t. This weekend I’ll spend with friends, seeking the sun, and somehow, finishing at least one book review. Because that is writing I can do right now & it’s writing that will eventually bring in some money, unlike the dissertation or the Ph.D. which seems only to create more debt & get in the way of the REAL writing I want to do.
In the days since last Tuesday’s election, I’ve heard and read exhortations to “build bridges,” to “start a dialogue,” and to “express ourselves through art.” I’ve also read and heard many people say “there’s no point” to the ongoing protests in many American cities. Most people who know me know that I am an intellectual, a critical thinker and abhor violence. Aside from a few Freedom of Choice or Anti-War gatherings, it’s been years since I’ve participated in a street protest. I’m painfully shy, loathe crowds and have found in the past that most protesters hold more extreme views than my own.
This time it’s different. I could argue the math: HRC won the popular vote (as the days pass, it appears, by a large margin). I could argue the political history: the Electoral College was created in a time when 75% of the current American population did not have the vote and it has become largely irrelevant and an impediment to Democracy – silencing the will of the people rather than aiding in any balance of power. But while there are those in the NYC protests whose signs reflect these views, there is a much more urgent reason we are marching. We are certainly not “professional protesters” (as Trump has claimed) but average New Yorkers of all genders, races, and age groups. These marches are not about “being sore losers” (as Trumpians claim), nor are they about “being unrealistic” (as pundits and politicians tell us). Instead, this is about drawing a line in the sand. Or to quote one of the signs I saw yesterday referencing Gandalf (LOTR), a line beyond which hate “shall not pass.”
As the days pass and the incidences of hate crimes increase while the Government does and says NOTHING, it has become important that we march, that we hold signs high that read “Muslim Rights are Human Rights,” “Trans Rights are Human Rights,” “Refugees Are Welcome Here,” “We are ALL Immigrants,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Nasty Women Fight Back.” I’ve read posts on Facebook and heard from otherwise relatively compassionate white friends that we all need to move on and to move forward together. No, we don’t. We ALL need to stand up against Fascism, against Racism and Misogyny and Homophobia and Anti-Refugee and Anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence. We ALL need to march in the streets in vast numbers until our Government hears us and says loud enough for Trump’s followers to hear: “We will NOT tolerate violence against our citizens and we WILL prosecute hate crimes and hate speech.” And until THAT happens, please do not ask any of us who are marching to “build bridges” with people who think gay-bashing and Muslim-bashing and assaulting women and spray painting swastikas in school dorms and chanting “build a wall” at kids in school cafeterias is “freedom of speech.”
We did not vote for hate. We did not elect Trump. And we MUST stand up against his followers. Hiding at home or “getting back to normal” or thinking posting photos of yourself on Facebook wearing a safety pin counts as activism, cannot be our collective response. Give to the ACLU, volunteer in your community, wear a safety pin but ALSO get out there and raise your voice. Because until we ALL march, until we are ALL loud in our condemnation of hate, they will do nothing. #notmypresident
Somehow it’s already October & as I watch deadlines fly by somewhat akin to the leaves blowing off trees, I realize it’s been weeks (months?) since I’ve written a blog post. I could blame the volume of reading I have to do for Grad School “comps” or the hundred manuscripts I have to read or the heavier workload at my “day job” this semester, but really, it’s this “non-writing” thing that’s been happening since August. I’ve gone from writing a “poem-a-day” to maybe one every couple of weeks. I haven’t written a word of fiction since August & the only non-fiction I’m writing is of the academic variety: dry and focused on exposition and argument, not image/character/plot/rhythm. For a while in September, I was creating “erasure” poems from various texts and that was fun but it didn’t stimulate my writing the way I’d hoped it would. Much of my energy these days is focused on keeping up with the workload(s) and getting my body moving again post-surgery. I’ve done a couple of hikes & I’m walking to/from work again most days (about 1.5 miles each way). A walk that can be both freeing and irritating (cars blasting through crosswalks, bicycles on sidewalks/blocking crosswalks/ignoring red lights, tourists, people glued to phones). My commute takes me from the West Village to the East Village and this time of year, everything is decorated for Halloween except the banks & that hideous IBM tower in the midst of Astor Place. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday & this year is no exception. I’ll be celebrating in various ways: a séance at the Merchant’s House Museum, two episodes of Radio Theatre NYC’s HP Lovecraft Festival, and maybe a spooky movie or two. I may even go see The Damned. Every few years I attend the Village Halloween Parade but last year it was such a crowded mess, I’ll likely skip it. There’s something about the season that brings on a certain post-Goth nostalgic-melancholy that is both uncomfortable and oddly pleasurable. I miss dressing up. I miss going to see “scary” bands with my scary Goth friends. But seeing the new Clash-inspired film London Town last night I was reminded of just how dirty, cold, and brutal London was under Thatcher. I lived there at the height of the London Goth scene and while it was a formative year for my very young self & rife with positive new experiences (Joyce’s Ulysses, punk rock/Goth boyfriends, Sisters of Mercy/Virgin Prunes/Nick Cave-Bad Seeds/Neubaten) I also have a strong memory of ALWAYS being cold. Freezing in fact. London was damp and everywhere I lived suffered from poor heating and terrible water pressure (when there was running water). It’s not much different in NYC. Although I have a door that locks, a toilet that (mostly) flushes & a shower that (nearly always) has hot water, and at least an expectation of heat at home and work, I’m still cold. And maybe that’s a lesson I learned all those years ago living in my own version of Halloween Town, all the beautiful words & books & all the loud music in the world won’t keep me warm. Sometimes writing eases that deep, dark cold inside but sometimes it serves only to open another door into that well of nostalgia and melancholy from which much bad poetry emanates. Still, I’ll celebrate the best holiday of the year & maybe I’ll even write a line or two in celebration.
In the wake of yet another terrorist attack, I find it hard to stay focused on the myriad projects with deadlines looming (or already passed). But one thing I learned from those horrible days in september 2001 in NYC when the dust was everywhere and sirens became a part of our daily soundtrack is that there is a way through and for some of us, that way is with words. I write to understand the world. I write to understand myself. And when I can’t understand either, I write because I have to. That may sound pretentious or self-involved (aren’t all humans by nature self-involved?) but I really believe in the healing power of art. For several years I volunteered as a writing workshop facilitator at the Brooklyn Vet Center leading workshops for veterans with PTSD. They didn’t write about combat all that much and (with a very few exceptions) they were positive, mutually supportive and wonderful writers. The opportunity to write with them every week was one of the high points of my writing life. While that workshop ended due to a mixture of organizational dis-organization and my own PTSD making it difficult to take the subway to/from Bklyn every week, I still draw strength from that time spent writing with men and women who have witnessed horrors I will (I hope) never see. To be real, no one is “safe” and there is no such thing as “normalcy” (a word thrown around a lot in the days and weeks after 9/11 in NYC). But I can’t live life worrying every minute about when the next attack will come. And on those days when I just can’t see how we will ever get through this, how humanity will ever become “humane” on a global scale, I know I can’t do much but what I can do is write. And whether that writing helps anyone else? I don’t know. What I do know is that it helps me: to process rage, sadness, guilt, and confusion. So my advice to you: take some time this week, this month, this year to write, to read, and to write some more. Art does matter. Writing does matter. Even if you are the only person who sees it, it matters.
Another December has come and gone and with it the anxieties and joys of travel, family, holiday traditions, and of course the annual (nightly?) “taking stock of my life” that I’m prone to. I finished up another semester of grad school with two final papers – one on the importance of Irish/Irish-American women in the American Labor movement and one on the “eviction” photographs of Robert French (19th C. Irish photographer). I celebrated the end of the semester by going to see the new Star Wars movie – Han Solo was killed which pretty much ends that story for me. I then packed up and headed for Northern Arizona to spend a week with my parents and other assorted family. The N.AZ Unitarians put on a good Solstice celebration as well as a good service on the 24th. My mom sang in the choir on the 24th and it was great to see her up there singing and to see how full of energy she is after a year-long fight against Cancer. It snowed on Christmas Day which was made that much nicer as I didn’t have to commute in NYC through the resultant slush. While in AZ I read a lot, watched some football with my dad, walked some, and wrote less. Back in NYC for a few days, I divested myself of several pounds of books and paper, read more books and caught up with friends. On Jan 2nd, I headed out to Washington State to attend the ArtSmith Residency on Orcas Island. I hadn’t been to the San Juan Islands since I was a kid but had vivid memories of that gorgeous ferry ride from Anacortes. A high school friend picked me up at the airport and I was soon on the ferry. I met fellow residency attendee – Alaskan writer Nancy Lord at the ferry station – a great writer and a true pleasure to spend time with. After a gorgeous (albeit very grey) ferry ride, we arrived on Orcas Island. I was given a HUGE room (by NYC standards) and spent the week enjoying the space, reading, getting to know my fellow residents, and most importantly, writing. The mornings I spent drinking (too much) coffee and staring at the Salish Sea and the mountains will stay with me for a long, long time. I spent one afternoon and night in Seattle catching up with old friends and walking around the Market and its environs. Seattle was my first “big” city, it’s the place I was born, and the place I first discovered much of the music and literature and lifestyle that is integral to who I am. It no longer feels like “home” but it does feel like a place I could live. While deep in the woods (or out on the beach) on Orcas, I felt the strong pull of “home” – the “right” ocean, a more sane pace of life, a space to think and write and breathe.
While in Seattle, we got the news of the death of David Bowie. Others have written much and more eloquently than I could of the importance of Bowie in shaping taste, personal identity, and self-expression. I’m glad I heard the news while I was with a long-time friend in Seattle. NYC is full of good, sensitive, creative humans but I didn’t spend my childhood here and it will never really be “home” for me. Now that news has come out that CD Wright and Alan Rickman have both died of Cancer and of course remembering the huge presence that was John Trudell, I have to wonder if I wasn’t better off on that island, cut off from news of the wide world and instead studying trees, and tiny shells, birds and patterns of words. Perhaps life would be better away from the brutal stress of life in NYC, and away from the huge sadness of the world at large. NYC can be a beautiful and inspiring place to live but just two weeks away is enough to change my perspective. Whether or not I finish the work I started and edited at ArtSmith, I hope to hold onto that changed perspective as I move into another academic year, another work year, and another year of living. I am thankful for what I have, for those who are still with us, and for the gifts of those who are gone.
As I prepare to drag myself from the Day Job campus to the Grad School campus in the midst of a Heat Wave, I’m once again questioning the wisdom of my continued residency in this monstrosity known as New York City. Granted, I live two blocks from one of the best art house cinemas in the country, within limping distance of several “vegan friendly” restaurants and am surrounded by politically like-minded people. However…as summer slides into fall with no apparent signs of abating and I continue to struggle with various strained ligaments, fused vertebrae, and a twice daily walking commute that not only destroys most footwear but also looks to be destroying my ankles, knees and peace-of-mind, I wonder just what it is that makes New York City so great? A recent long weekend (my “summer vacation”) spent in Cape May, NJ made a close friend ask me this question I often ask myself: why do I stay? As I stared out at the waves I’d just spent the day floating/swimming/being pummeled by, another glorious sunset, and the spray of leaping dolphins (yes, dolphins…), I could only say, “because I don’t know where else I could live.” It’s not just about being able to get a decent meal delivered at 4am but it’s about intellect, transport, access and an odd kind of freedom. I no longer really care about the music scene in NYC and most of the clubs in my neighborhood are closed now or too filled with kids for me to like being there. After all, I’m not in my twenties any more but that’s okay. What I mean by access & transport is this: I live near four (or more) amazing bookstores (not to mention those guys who sell good books on the tables outside the NYU library). I can walk to 3 different Farmer’s Markets. I live near two of the best libraries in the country, if not the Western world. I can see pretty much any kind of music I might want to pretty much any night of the week. I can also see the best the literary world has to offer – often for free. I can take a train and in an hour I’ll be at a beautiful beach or a really stunning hiking trail in the woods. I work with people who not only read the books most white liberals read but some of the people who wrote those books. In fact, I’m surrounded by white liberals, radical, intellectuals – most of whom are successful professors, writers, artists, or filmmakers. So why ever leave? Because I live in a 5th floor walk-up in an apartment that has no kitchen cabinets or counters. I can’t have furniture with wheels because the entire building is listing to one side. I’ve never had a yard or a garden. I’ve never owned a car and couldn’t afford to park one or put gas in it even if I did. Everything I own has to fit inside a 400 square foot space. Unless I go running (which I can’t do right now) early in the morning several blocks away from my apartment, I never see the sun rise. And I only see it set if I stand on a roof somewhere or hang out in New Jersey. I live completely surrounded by water but only get to swim when I take a train for an hour to the beach. There are 5 separate construction projects one block from my apartment that show no signs of ever ending. And then there are the white people. As a white person myself this may sound hypocritical but really, I moved to NYC for the music scene and for lack of a better word, it’s “diversity.” I grew up in a place completely surrounded by white people. Granted, every time I leave NYC I feel like I’m completely surrounded by white people (not to mention Republicans and Fundamentalist Christians) but the longer I live in my neighborhood, the more it seems to have lost any diversity it once had. But really, where would I go? None of the outer boroughs appeal and although moving back to the PNW holds its particular appeal, wouldn’t that just be a whole lot more white people? I don’t know the answer but meanwhile, it’s 90+ outside, smells like fungal rot and another semester has started where I’ll be doing my best to find ways around the white male narrative so prevalent in grad school and I’ll be trying to teach my muscles how to run and climb again but most likely I won’t be seeing any sunrises or sunsets for a good long time. Not to mention dolphins.